Case Study: Maine COVID-19 Superspreader Event
It started out as a picture-perfect wedding on a summer day in Maine: first the ceremony in a quaint chapel followed by a reception in a Victorian-style inn. But, the date was August 7, 2020, and by mid-September, the event had led to 177 cases of COVID-19 and seven deaths. None of the people who died had attended the wedding or reception.
It’s easy enough to focus on the errors of the wedding party and the inn—there were no cases linked to the church. However, failures in prevention at four separate businesses fanned the coronavirus spread. Collectively, they provide a case study on lapses that companies need to actively avoid in 2021 as new viral strains demand more vigilance than ever.
At the heart of the super spreading event was the Big Moose Inn in Millinocket, Maine, site of the reception. Employees wore masks and took guests’ temperatures before letting them enter. However, they allowed the reception to exceed the state’s 50-person limit by five people, and the tables set up for four to six people made it difficult for guests from different households to maintain six-foot social distancing. Making matters worse, employees did not enforce the mask rule with guests, many of whom also came close together on the dance floor. No one at the inn collected information for contract tracing.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (MeCDC) reported that the reception led directly to 30 coronavirus cases: half of the reception attendees, one employee, one vendor, and another guest of the inn. These infections led to another 27 secondary and tertiary cases in the community. One person, who was indirectly infected, died as a result.
The Long-Term Facility
One wedding reception guest spent time with their parent in the days that immediately followed. The parent worked 100 miles away from Millinocket at the Maplecrest Rehabilitation and Living Center in Madison, Maine. By August 11, the parent experienced several coronavirus symptoms. On August 13, their test for COVID-19 came back positive.
Despite the employee’s symptoms, the rehabilitation center allowed this person to work onsite August 11 and 12. Additionally, there were no documented attempts of the facility attempting to isolate the worker from patients and colleagues. Ultimately, 38 people—14 staff members and 24 residents—caught COVID-19. Six of the residents died.
Another wedding reception guest is a staff member at the York County Jail in Alfred, Maine, some 200 miles away from Millinocket. By August 15, the employee was experiencing coronavirus symptoms but proceeded to work at the jail August 15 through August 19 when the person’s COVID-19 test came back positive.
MeCDC in conjunction with the Maine Department of Corrections assessed the jail’s mitigation efforts and determined that the facility had not conducted daily symptom screening on staff members, nor had it enforced the regular use of masks even after the first case was confirmed. Only on August 27, more than a week after the initial coronavirus case, did the jail implement the CDC’s COVID-19 mitigation guidelines for correctional facilities.
By mid-September, a total of 82 COVID-19 cases associated with the jail had been confirmed: 18 staff members, 48 inmates, and 16 household contacts of the jail workers. Fortunately, no one was hospitalized, and no one died.
Part of the community spread discussed earlier directly impacted schools in Millinocket, East Millinocket and nearby Medway. Notably, a staff member of the East Millinocket School who was a musician at the wedding reception, came down with COVID-19 symptoms and tested positive. Five additional employees and two students of the school also tested positive for the coronavirus.
The school acted quickly to halt the spread. Employees who were identified as having come into contact with infected co-workers went into self-quarantine, and schools in the three districts delayed the start of classes by two weeks. No known hospitalizations or deaths were tied to the school.
The quick action by the East Millinocket School helped to contain the viral spread to eight people. This demonstrates the importance of having a mitigation plan in place so that an organization can move immediately if possible infection is detected. It also stands in sharp contrast to the York County Jail, which had a one-week lag in implementing mitigation measures recommended by the CDC and ended up with ten times as many COVID-19 cases.
Still, schools in three districts remained closed for two weeks. For many businesses, having to shut down for that length of time could translate into tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses. Clearly, mitigation is too little, too late. The focus needs to be on prevention.
Onsite, that means adhering to coronavirus prevention guidelines provided by the CDC and other health organizations. Both the Big Moose Inn and York County Jail failed to enforce mask mandates, among other lapses. It’s likely that by August, employees at these organizations were experiencing coronavirus fatigue.
The complacency at both the Maplecrest Rehabilitation and Living Center and York County Jail, which allowed staff members with coronavirus symptoms to continue working onsite, points to another issue. We need to stop potentially exposed employees from coming into contact with co-workers, customers, patients, students, and others in the first place.
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